Movies, I have always believed, are ephemeral in their appeal.
A lot of movies heralded as classics by my parents were overdramatic, unrealistic poetry for me.
If ever I have to choose a 'first among equals', it has to be Mani Ratnam, a director whose creations I've cherished since 1986.
I have always been a movie junkie. My parents dreaded to take me to a cinema hall since I was three. As it happened, once, after seeing the movie Moondram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi), I refused to leave the theatre till Sridevi got back to Kamal Haasan. My parents had to tell me stories for three nights to stop me from crying!
By the time I was 12, I was writing screenplays hoping to show it to the three people whom I consider the pinnacle of creativity: Kamal Haasan, K Balachander and, of course, Mani Ratnam.
I can still remember every single frame of Mani Ratnam's movies. Like Agni Nakshatram (the story of two stepbrothers) or Mouna Raagam (just another love triangle executed to perfection).
My younger brother and I would enact Agni Nakshatram's climax on the portico of our house every night.
Of course, back then in 1986, I didn't know Mani Ratnam was the director of these movies.
The moment of reckoning came with the movie Nayakan (starring Kamal Haasan). That, till date, is the one of the best movies I have ever seen. A brilliant portrayal of Velu Nayakar by Kamal, Ilayaraja's haunting tunes and, to cap it all, excellent direction by Mani Ratnam.
True, most of the scenes in the movie are inspired from Godfather. But, when you see the movie, the 'native-ness' and the truth in every frame is unmistakable.
He then gives him a paan. That act is his way of giving his son due regard as a 'nayakar'. The son turns away from him and eats it, clearly as a sign of respect to his dad. So much expressed without a single word.
In another scene, when Kamal meets his grandson for the first time, he has nothing to give him but a holy thread. How he executes the scene says volumes about Kamal as an actor and Mani Ratnam as director.
Soon came Dalapathi (starring Mammootty and Rajinikanth). On paper, the story is an excerpt from the Mahabharata. It stars Karna in the lead; Arjuna, Duryodhana and Kunti form the rest of the cast. On screen, you see multi-layered characters driven by different forces of emotions.
There are two things that make Mani Ratnam's movies a treat to watch.
Exemplary performances: I am sure Dalapathi was one of Rajni's best ever performance.
Music: Be it Ilayaraja or A R Rahman, music directors gave him their best. When you see the scene where Rajni finally gets to meet his mother, you will definitely feel a lump in your throat, thanks to Ilayaraja's effective use of silence.
Of course, for both these movies, Mani Ratnam has to share the laurels with superstars like Kamal or Rajni.
But, one of his best works as a director was Anjali, in which he made a two-year-old girl play a child with Down's Syndrome, capturing how she changes the life of her family and her neighbours in her apartment complex.
One of my personal favourites is Iruvar. It is about two friends etched in the background of their political struggle (strongly inspired by the lives of M G Ramachandran and Karunanidhi).
Every character and relationship in this movie is a masterpiece. For example, Tabu's character as Prakash Raj's second wife acts as his conscience asking exactly the same questions that run in his mind. The conflict of ego is so beautifully shown in the scene where Mohanlal tells Prakash Raj about his decision to join the party.
Ego, prejudice, friendship and regard can coexist between two people -- this is shown so poignantly in this movie.
That is one of the best things about Mani Ratnam's characters. They are not two-dimensional, cause-and-effect driven paper caricatures. They are multi-faceted souls driven by forces that sometimes contradict reason, just like real people.
In Kannathil Muthamittaal, most of my friends couldn't understand why Madhavan, a reformist writer, had to tell his daughter about his real mother. They thought it was a directorial flaw.
He would not have if he were the candyfloss father we have been seeing for so long. But when you get under the skin of the character, you realise that Madhavan has always prided himself on being different. He is a writer with a difference, someone who stands by his ideals. He could not have reacted in any other way.
Now, you can spot a Mani Ratnam movie at first glance: dim lighting, brief dialogues, fantastic background scores, youthful mischief (be it Karthik in Mouna Ragam, or the 'Are you a virgin?' dialogue by Preity Zinta in Dil Se..). These have become trademarks of a director who has brought to life few of the best emotional dramas ever.
What got Ratnam the limelight was his stand on issues of national importance, as seen in Roja and Bombay. But, somehow, the personal touch that each of his characters exudes was absent in these films. What carried these movies, in my opinion, were the emotions attached to the issue, rather than Ratnam's deft potrayal.
You have a lot to live up to when you are Mani Ratnam.
My favourite Mani Ratnam movies:
My favourite Mani Ratnam characters:
- Karthik (Mouna Raagam)
- Kamal Haasan and his foster son (Nayakan).
- Madhavan, Shalini (Alai Payuthey)
- Madhavan, Simran (Kannathil Muthamittaal).
- Shamilee, Revathy (Anjali)
- Madhoo (Roja)
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